Thompson, Charles S.
Photo: Samuel Allen (left) and Charles Thompson (courtesy Whyte Archives)

Charles Thompson climbed extensively in the Canadian Rockies. As well as participating in numerous first ascents, he was in the first party to ascend the Alexandra River and reach the pass that bears his name.

On August 10, 1897 Charles S. Thompson, Hugh Stutfield, and Norman Collie camped on the shores of Bow Lake. The following day they climbed the glacier, which at that time descended farther down into the valley, and crossed the Wapta Icefield to reach the summit of Mount Gordon above the Yoho Valley. From this viewpoint they were surrounded by un-named mountains and took the liberty of naming one of the peaks Mount Thompson, which we are able to see from the Bow Lake Viewpoint. A short time later, after being immortalized by the naming of Mount Thompson, Charles Thompson very nearly became the Canadian Rockies' second climbing fatality. The story of his brush with death is one of the most exciting incidents in the early years of mountaineering in the Rockies.

Collie described the accident: "Not far from this second summit a huge crevasse partially covered with snow had to be crossed. All the party had passed over but Thompson who unfortunately broke through and at once disappeared headlong into the great crack that ran perpendicularly down into the depths of the glacier... Although Thompson was too far down to be seen, yet he could be heard calling for help and saying that although he was not hurt, he would be extremely grateful to us if we could make haste and extricate him from the awkward position he was in, for he could not move and was almost upside down, jammed between the two opposing sides of the crevasse."

Collie, being the lightest of the party as well as unmarried, was, "lowered into the gaping hole. On one side the ice fell sheer, and the other it was undercut, but again bulged outwards about eighteen feet below the surface, making the crevasse at that point not much more than two feet wide. Then it widened again, and went down into dim twilight. It was not till I had descended sixty feet, almost the whole available length of an eighty foot rope, that at last I became tightly wedged between the two walls of the crevasse, and was absolutely incapable of moving my body. My feet were close to Thompson's but his head was further away, and about three feet lower than his heel. Face downwards, and covered with fallen snow, he could not see me. But, after he explained that it was entirely his own fault that he was there, I told him we would have him out in no time. At that moment I must say I hardly expected to be able to accomplish anything. For, jammed between two slippery walls of ice, and only able to move my arms, cudgel my brains as I would, I could not think what was to be done. I shouted for another rope. When it came down I managed to throw one end to Thompson's left hand, which waved about until he caught it. But when pulled it merely dragged out of his hand. Then with some difficulty I managed to tie a noose on the rope by putting both by hands above my head. With this I lassoed that poor pathetic arm which was the only part of Thompson that could be seen. Then came the tug-of-war. If he refused to move, I could do nothing more to help him; more-over I was afraid that at any moment he might faint. If that occurred I do not believe he could have been got out at all, for the force of the fall had jammed him further down than it was possible to follow. Slowly the rope tightened, as it was cautiously pulled by those above. I could hear may heart thumping in the ghastly stillness of the place, but at last Thompson began to shift, and after some short time he was pulled into an upright position by my side." From this point Thompson and then Collie were pulled to the surface of the icefield.

Collie continues, "Most marvelously no bones had been broken, but how one could have fallen as he did without being instantaneously killed will always remain a mystery. He must have partially jammed some considerable distance higher up than the point where I found him, for he had a ruck-sack on his back, and this perhaps acted as a brake, as the walls of the crevasse closed in lower down."